Being Female and Asian in 2021

Between the Atlanta attack, rise in Asian hate crimes, and safety struggles as a woman, the racism faced by Asians is vast and deserves a better response.

by Pamela Ponciano

‘Making my way downtown, walking fast, faces pass and I’m homebound’

- A Thousand Miles, Vanessa Carlton

Everyone knows this song, right? Well known for that one scene in the film White Chicks, it’s one of those nostalgic and iconic songs that many of us heard during our childhood. Although actually about a lost love, this line of the song is undeniably universal, speaking to the experience of walking down a busy street. However, not everyone knows what it’s like to be walking down the street as a woman, or as an Asian, or even both. Since the first known outbreaks of the coronavirus in Wuhan, China, racially motivated assaults fuelled by the perception that the coronavirus came about because of Asians, have been on the rise. The Centre for the Study of Hate and Extremism reports that in 16 of the largest cities in the United States, anti-Asian hate crimes rose by 149% in 2020, despite overall hate crime dropping by 7%. While the mere 7% drop in overall hate crime might be something to celebrate, it is upsetting for the Asian community to see a vast increase in anti-Asian hate crimes, and with Donald Trump continuously dubbing coronavirus as ‘the Chinese virus’ and ‘kung flu’, it was a sign that the Asian community could not fully rely on the people in power to protect them.

This morning, I woke up to the news of an attack in Atlanta. Out of the eight people who were shot dead, six were Asian women. The murderer’s actions have been blamed on him having a ‘bad day,’ by sheriff captain Jay Baker, who also claims that no motive has been established. If your blood pressure hasn’t spiked from anger yet, posts from Baker’s Facebook profile show shirts with a racist message, expressing his love for his new shirt and prompting others to get their own. Taking this into account, Baker’s credibility as a law enforcer is put into question, and it is possible that his own personal feelings and opinions about Asians were expressed through his choice of empathetic language when dismissing the actions of a murderer as the consequence of a ‘bad day’.

'White criminals have the privilege of the benefit of the doubt'

I understand the collective outrage that comes with these claims, especially because in the context of increased hate crimes against Asians, it is difficult to believe that racial bias was not a motivating factor. Had the murderer been a POC, it is highly unlikely that the killings would have been attributed to the murderer having a ‘bad day’. White criminals have the privilege of the benefit of the doubt, and there is always some tragic backstory to explain their cruel actions.

This is not the first time racist motivations have been brushed over or underplayed by law enforcement. Let’s not forget the mass murderer who massacred 9 innocent people at a church and was given a burger and chips by officers. In response to the Atlanta murders, police patrols have increased in Asian American communities. However, the Asian community has no reason to have faith in law enforcement. The police force have demonstrated in several instances that individuals are capable of abusing their powers and acting upon underlying racial biases.

When we find that the United States has almost 4000 reports of Asian hate crimes in the past year, it is easy to point the finger and tell them to do better. The Page Act of 1875 was introduced in the United States in order to bar Chinese women specifically from entering the country. It aimed to prohibit the importation of unfree labourers and women brought for ‘immoral purposes’ like prostitution. Under this act, a person from East Asia coming to be a forced labourer, women who would engage in prostitution and everyone who was considered a convict in their own country were deemed ‘undesirable immigrants’ and were barred from entering the country. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act prohibited immigration of Chinese labourers and was the first and only implemented law which explicitly prevented all members of a specific ethnic or national group from immigrating to the United States.

Having said that, the UK is also not innocent. As recently as 1946, the Home Office ordered a mass deportation of Chinese sailors in Liverpool, giving them only a few days notice. In the early 1940’s several thousand Chinese sailors were recruited into the British Merchant navy and played a crucial role in British warfare. In 1942, they demanded equal pay and treatment as local sailors, which eventually led to strike action. Consequently, they were seen as troublemakers and the government were eager to rid Liverpool of ‘undesirable elements’. Due to the hostile conditions in Liverpool, many of the Chinese sailors were willing to return to China, although other sailors who had started families were not given a choice. Tragically, many families were never informed about the forced repatriation, and were led to believe that the sailors died at sea or had chosen to abandon their families.

As a UK citizen, it can be easy to detach myself from this horrendous Atlanta attack with it being thousands of miles away. However, I also can’t help but wonder how long it will be until something like this happens in the UK. In February last year, a UCL student suffered from what is believed to be a racially motivated attack on Oxford Street. The victim heard someone mutter something about coronavirus and when he turned around to see who it was, he was told ‘don’t you look at me’. Witnesses recount hearing shouts of ‘you are diseased, don’t come near me,’ and the student was then beaten up until a passerby ordered the attackers to stop. One of the four attackers handed himself in and admitted to grievous bodily harm, but denied that the attack was racially motivated.

'It scares me that I could be the next victim at any time.'

This was one of the first reported incidents in the UK that I read on BBC News concerning the coronavirus, and seeing this article was unsettling because not only was Oxford Street a place I frequented, but it was also a stone’s throw from my university. To have a violent incident happen in one of the busiest places in London makes you realise that attackers don’t care who you are and where you are. It scares me that I could be the next victim at any time.

It is, however, reassuring to see people from various backgrounds support the movement against Asian hate crimes. I’m sure I’m not the only Asian who was taught to keep my head down, avoid eye contact or even leave when there was an altercation or when a situation seemed to be escalating. It does feel good to see Asians coming forward and using their platforms to share any experiences and also to spread awareness about this issue, instead of keeping quiet.

The earliest memory I have of racism was when a girl ran around the playground making the slanted-eye gesture while calling out ‘small eyes’. To my 8-year-old self, it was another day of playground banter because I had no idea about the concept of racism. I feel fortunate that I never felt insecure about or resented my Asian features - I have read accounts of fellow Asians wishing they had a sharper nose or bigger eyes as a result of bullying.

'Coronavirus gave bigots the green light to express their hate freely and openly.'

March 2020 was the next time I remember experiencing racism. People on the tube used their clothes to cover their nose and mouth, and people at my local park covered their faces as I walked past them, only to uncover them once I was a ‘safe’ distance away. I wasn’t deeply hurt nor was I surprised by these actions. It is a known point that racism is deeply entrenched into our society: the appearance of coronavirus now gave bigots the green light to express their hate freely and openly.

I appreciate that people on social media are reposting material and information to spread awareness and to educate, but it is frustrating when I see comments from other POC who say things like ‘but where were you all when X happened?’, ‘I’ll be vocal about supporting the Asian community once they are vocal about supporting us’, or ‘Asians are too anti-X for me to support them’. This is not a competition to see who is the most oppressed. Activism is crucial to create the foundation for change: it can be a small action like reaching out to or looking out for your Asian peers or supporting Asian businesses. If you are in a position to do so, you can donate to End the Virus of Racism or you can simply visit their website to read about their mission. Similarly, United States citizens can go to Stop AAPI Hate to support the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. Don’t be afraid to call out anti-Asian behaviour and speech if it is safe for you to do so, and if you happen to witness an incident, offer the victim help and support.

As if increasing hate crimes against Asians wasn’t enough, the murder of Sarah Everard has caused even more unease for women. I have always been careful when going out and sometimes it feels like a whole undercover mission where I have to stay quiet and creep around in the dark so that I am not noticed, despite it being the middle of the day. It’s ironic that as a woman, I talk about finding comfort and safety in the dark. When the sky is black and there are nothing but lamp posts lighting up my path, I also feel totally vulnerable and wish it was daytime. Apparently I can never win.

I hate when I realise that I don’t have my keys in my hand while I walk home at night; it means that I have to take attention away from my surroundings to rummage around my bag. Not to be dramatic, but those few seconds could cost me my life. When I’m waiting for the train, I make sure to stay in sight of the CCTV and to wait near the staff member patrolling the platform. It’s hard for me to tell you about the other precautions I take when I am going home at night because they have become unconscious habits that have been drilled into my brain since I was young.

'the fact that almost all women in the UK aged 18-24 have been sexually harassed means there is a lot of work to do.'

Most, if not all, women* (*women identifying and those affected by sexism and misogyny) around the world can relate. In the past few weeks, we have seen women come forward, digging up painful memories of sexual harassment to share their stories. Sarah Everard did everything she could to keep herself safe: she went home at a reasonable time, walked along well-lit streets, checked-in with her boyfriend through a call, yet she never managed to make it home that night. While sexual harassment is not exclusive to women - it can happen to men too - the fact that almost all women in the UK aged 18-24 have been sexually harassed means there is a lot of work to do. If we don’t act and ensure that men are held accountable for their actions, we cannot avoid the inevitable reality that young girls will continue to grow up fearing for their safety.

When I left to study abroad in Seoul, my poor Korean skills and living in the vicinity of North Korea were some of my main concerns. I didn’t go there with fears of being the victim of harassment and assault crimes - I can’t remember where this impression of safety came from, but perhaps the fantasy of finally living alone in a new city and the new possibilities and experiences overrode all the negatives that exist even in Korean society. It turned out to be fine when I had to walk home at 3am or later several times after a night of drinking with friends. Perhaps it was the fact that my apartment was in a university area, perhaps I was lucky to avoid being at the wrong place, at the wrong time, or perhaps it was thanks to a lot of businesses in Seoul staying open throughout the night. I consider myself lucky to have stayed out of harm’s way.

There have been incidents in South Korea where women have been followed home; one man even made it to a woman’s front door and attempted to sneak inside her apartment by catching the door before it closed. CCTV footage shows the man attempting to retrace the apartment pin code on the door keypad. When he couldn’t, he lingered at the door, pressing his ear up against it and just waited before eventually leaving. It was chilling to watch and read about this incident. One thing you should know about South Korea is that the majority of housing don’t even use keys - you enter buildings and open your front door with a pin number, so you can’t even have something ready in your hand should you need some kind of weapon.

Thinking back, I do remember one time I was in Itaewon, and I was standing at the side of the road waving down passing cabs when a drunk man who only spoke English approached me. I wasn’t really paying attention to his ramblings and I remember nothing he said except that the place he was looking for was literally a 5 minute walk away. This guy didn’t seem suspicious or dangerous until he asked if he could get in the cab with me. I didn’t say yes, neither did I say no. I successfully hailed a cab and through the open window, I explained to the driver in Korean that I didn’t know the guy who was standing next to me and that he was bothering me. Essentially, I was hoping that the driver would deduce that I felt like I was in danger but he just stared blankly back at me. Maybe I used the wrong verb. Maybe he didn’t understand my Korean. Or maybe he just didn’t care that I felt unsafe. I jumped into the cab anyway and locked the door while the drunk man stood outside. I lied and told him that the driver would be taking the opposite route to where he wanted to go and that he should just walk. I did make it home safely that evening but a lot of what if’s circulate in my head whenever I remember this event.

I have not been deterred by the hate crimes I experience both as a woman and as an Asian. I still have to live my life, and unfortunately, it has become another one of those things I have to live with. Situations like these make me wish I was enrolled into self-defence lessons instead of violin lessons as a child and that if it was possible for me to be invisible, I would choose to be.

'Everyone deserves to live safely and to walk carefree down the street like Vanessa Carlton describes in her song, even if they don’t take precautionary steps.'

During parent-teacher evenings, it was common for teachers to comment on my lack of participation in class. I am the type to listen more and I never really thought my contributions would be of value - I also didn’t like being wrong. Gradually, I have become uninhibited when it comes to expressing my opinions and views, but could that be the result of attending a university that is known for being outspoken and open about social issues and having protests on campus almost every week? Asian culture pretty much dictates that you should not make any trouble for yourself or that you should keep to yourself. Over time, it became a habit to keep a low profile whether it be at school or work - which is why I’m finding it hard to believe that I am even writing this piece and exposing my own opinions on current issues.

Everyone deserves to live safely and to walk carefree down the street like Vanessa Carlton describes in her song, even if they don’t take precautionary steps. Women should be able to walk home in the dark without being paranoid in the same way that Asians should be left alone and not live in fear of being attacked for the simple reason that Covid-19 was first detected in China.

In response to the Atlanta attack, people are spreading awareness with hopes that the world will become a safer place for everyone to live in in the future. Ethnic minority groups who feel backed into a corner have a right to not be afraid to go out and get on with their day peacefully; to not be afraid of the police. I am aware that this process will take time though, and I probably won’t see this happen during my lifetime, but considering how long racism has been a problem, how many more lifetimes will it take for it to disappear? Will it ever disappear?

In memory of:

Xiaojie Tan

Daoyou Feng

Delaina Ashley Yaun

Paul Andre Michels

Hyung Jung Grant

Soon C. Park

Suncha Kim

Yong A. Yue

Sarah Everard

May they rest in peace.

Pamela is a recent graduate in Korean and Linguistics who enjoys watching true crime and paranormal videos, even though she refuses to watch psychological thrillers and horror movies. Lockdown gave her the opportunity to learn how to use a sewing machine, and along with a newfound interest in baking and nail art, you can find her creations at @pamsnailss.